There hasn’t been a better year than 2021 to be a fan of the Arkansas Razorbacks on the diamond.
The Razorbacks baseball team (40-10, 20-8 in the SEC) has been ranked No. 1 for 12 consecutive weeks, eight by unanimous vote. Last weekend, the Razorbacks softball team (43-9) won their second-ever regional championship and will host the super regional for the first time.
Both teams were having great 2020 seasons before they were abruptly canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. But with the postseason now in front of both, a College World Series championship isn’t out of the question for either, as they’ve continued to run through their respective competition.
When it comes to baseball, the Razorbacks are one of the game’s biggest brands. They’ve been to the CWS six times in the past 17 years and have had 16 NCAA tournament appearances since Dave Van Horn became coach in 2003.
The pandemic presented Van Horn and the Razorbacks with new challenges. Players weren’t able to compete in summer ball, and it was harder to develop team chemistry because everybody was spread around the country during the height of the pandemic.
But they eventually got things down pat.
“This is the first team I’ve been on where everybody loves everybody,” pitcher Kevin Kopps said. “Usually teams have groups sometimes, or there’s a couple people that are just kind of like, whatever and don’t really care. And they can be really important people, so it messes with it a little bit. But this team gels really well.”
Van Horn said this year’s team is unlike any he’s ever had because they don’t have any superstars, but rather just a solid group of players. “They can’t win without each other,” Van Horn said. “And I think they know.”
Kopps has been one of the most unhittable pitchers in college baseball this season despite an up-and-down career. Tommy John surgery set him back in 2018, he returned with a 3.89 ERA and a 6-3 record in 41.2 innings in 2019, but then had an 8.18 ERA over his seven appearances and 11 innings in 2020.
“Kevin kind of came out of nowhere,” Van Horn said. “We could see it in the fall because we didn’t hit him. And I remember [pitching] coach [Matt] Hobbs going, ‘Kevin’s better.’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah, we’re not hitting him!’ And then I’d hear some of the guys, ‘Man I hate hitting off Kevin.'”
In 25 appearances this season, Kopps has a 0.76 ERA, 9-0 record and eight saves in 59.1 innings pitched.
“These guys, they like to play, man,” Van Horn said. “They hang out here at the facility, and we’ve got really nice facilities, but they like each other, you can tell. And you can tell that on the field too, that they never really feel like they’re out of it. They just keep working and fighting. And we’ve had a lot of comeback wins this year, more than I can ever remember.
“So as a coaching staff, we feel like that, you know, we’re gonna get their best effort every day. And, you know, if things go our way, that it could be our year.”
Coach Courtney Deifel has built the softball program up to the same level as baseball in her six years at the helm. The Razorbacks won just one SEC game in Deifel’s first season in 2016. It’s something she still doesn’t prefer to discuss, despite having turned the program around.
The tests they’ve faced over the course of this season has the Razorbacks feeling confident as the road to the Women’s College World Series rolls on. They lost their first game of the season, a 12-11 marathon against Oklahoma State in Monroe, Louisiana, at the Best on the Bayou Classic after falling behind 10-3 through four innings. The rest of the tournament was canceled, but Deifel knew the Razorbacks were in for a special season.
“It was crappy conditions, and it was a slugfest,” she said. “And we lost, and I was sitting there so proud. I’m going, ‘This team is going to get some things done this year.'”
As the season progressed, the Razorbacks proved Deifel right. After splitting a doubleheader with host McNeese State in the Cowgirl Classic (a tournament they picked up at the last second, drove for 30 hours to Lake Charles, Louisiana, due to inclement weather, and played 21 innings in the two games), Arkansas turned around and played another doubleheader and won both games. That started a 19-game win streak, including their first 12 SEC games.
Arkansas won its first SEC championship this season and the sixth-seeded Razorbacks face No. 11 Arizona in the super regional (7 p.m. ET Friday, ESPNU/ESPN App).
The pandemic challenges forced the Razorbacks to develop resilience, especially when it came to having to leave players at home for certain stretches. “We adopted a saying from [head football coach] Sam Pittman,” Deifel said. “‘Who we have as who we need.’ And that’s what we’ve done all year.”
“[Everything has] just really prepared us for anything that may be thrown at us in the postseason,” Braxton Burnside said. “But day in and day out, you can bet that this team is going to be competitive, resilient, and we’re gonna have fun doing it.”
Burnside wields one of the team’s most explosive bats, and contributes plenty of the fun for Arkansas. In 47 games, she’s boasting a .347 batting average in 144 at bats with 51 RBIs and a team-leading 24 home runs.
The softball team’s chemistry, like the baseball team, is a driving factor in their success.
Razorbacks infielder Nicole Duncan had a spectacular diving catch from third base on a bunt that the team felt should have been featured among SportsCenter’s top plays. Instead, another player from another team made the show, but it didn’t matter to the Hogs in the end.
“[Duncan] goes, ‘That’s okay guys, she probably doesn’t have teammates that hype her up like we do,'” Deifel said. “And it was like that moment, I’m like, she is so right. ‘You know, she might need that, I don’t need that because I have teammates that hype me up,’ that’s what it’s all about.
“They’re just in it for each other and it’s really special.”
B5 | Arkansas 2, South Carolina 0
— Arkansas Razorback Softball (@RazorbackSB) March 13, 2021
Both the baseball and softball teams show support for each other when they can. Schedules typically don’t allow for too much crossover, but when possible, players will show up to each other’s games. It also shows up through texts and social media throughout all of Razorback athletics.
“This year has been mostly ‘Congratulations!’ because all they do is win and hit home runs,” Van Horn joked.
“I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve come off the field and one of my first texts is from Dave,” Deifel said. “There’s just this constant support that you feel from each other. But from all of the coaches on campus, Sam Pittman is usually one of my first texts that I get. He’s watching every one of our games.
“You just root for each other. It’s just such a connected athletic department and so supportive that you just want everybody to do so well. Everybody [at Arkansas] is killing it. And it’s just you want to be a part of it. You don’t want to be that one team that’s not.”
The Razorbacks on the baseball and softball diamonds have been holding their own this year, to the point where national championships are realistic expectations for both.
“It has kind of started to remind me of Baylor, the men’s and women’s basketball teams,” Kopps said. “That would be cool if both of our teams could go out and do something like that.”